Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Habit Forming, Compulsive Products

Modern slot machines.

Modern slot machines.

Here’s a good business model: create a habit-forming product or service that entices you to behave compulsively. Sex is probably the mother of all such operating models (both literally and figuratively). Other products that use the habituation model include tobacco, illicit drugs, gambling, alcohol, ERP software, and lately … mobile phones.

Here’s the good news: the list of products that are truly habit forming is fairly short. Here’s the bad news: it’s about to get much longer.

Product managers are now studying exactly what it is that makes products compulsive. They’re literally designing compulsion into their products.

We’re familiar with the habituation concept as it’s applied to gambling. Slot machines are no longer just clunky combinations of dials and gears. They’re now highly programmed devices that manage your behavior and entice you to linger longer. They sound like the same old clunky devices to lull you into forgetting who is managing whom.

We understand slot machines and, being the smart people that we are, we’re unlikely to be fooled by them. But what if wily product managers take the same concepts and apply them to, say, the websites you use regularly? Could they manage your behavior in the same way a slot machine does? You bet.

As Technology Review pointed out in a recent article:

Forging new habits has become an obsession among technology companies. In an age when commercial competition is only a clcik away, the new mandate is to make products and services that generate compulsive behvior. … The rise of mobile computing has intensifed that imperative. The small screen crowds out alternatives, focusing a person’s attention on a limited number of go-to apps.

So we can expect more “compulsive products” especially on our hand-held devices. How does compulsion work? According to Nir Eyal, a behavior engineer, it’s a four-step process. Think about your mobile phone.

  1. Trigger – a trigger prompts you and starts a process. Your phone buzzes in your pocket …
  2. Action – the buzzing phone causes you to interrupt whatever else you’re doing, take the phone out of your pocket, and look at it.
  3. Reward – the phone provides rewarding information. You find out that you favorite team won its game or that your boyfriend wants to take you to dinner.
  4. Investment – you invest yourself in the process by taking a further action, like responding to a message or adding a comment on a social media page. Your investment becomes a trigger from someone else.

All this may sound new and scary but, really, we’ve been preparing ourselves for this brave new world for a long time. When we had but one telephone in our house, my entire family jumped whenever it rang. It was the beginning of a long habituation process.

What to do? First, be aware that behavior engineers are designing experiences that promote compulsive behavior. I now think of my mobile phone as a slot machine in my pocket. Second, set limits on your behavior. When I go to a casino, I set a strict limit on how much I’ll lose. Then I stop. We can do the same with our devices. We can turn them off or set a timer that tells us when to stop.

Finally, we can also create our own, alternative rewards. I know my mobile phone creates compulsive behavior on my part. I check it often. But I’ve also created an alternate reward. When I check my phone, I remind myself to smile for at least ten seconds. Sure, it’s compulsive. But it brightens my day considerably.

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